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San Juan National Forest inches forward on maintenance projects

Great American Outdoors Act money will help improve roads, trails and recreation sites
San Juan National Forest has completed two of the 21 projects the national forest has received funding for through the Great American Outdoors Act. The bill, which passed in August 2020, earmarks $1.9 billion in funding annually over five years to help federal land agencies address maintenance backlogs. (Adobe Stock image)

An infusion of money from the Great American Outdoors Act over the last two years has allowed San Juan National Forest to begin tackling pressing maintenance backlogs throughout the forest.

San Juan National Forest has completed two of the 21 projects it has received funding for with one project a work in progress, one contracted and another five in the design phase. The rest are “ready” to move forward, according to the U.S. Forest Service’s Great American Outdoors Act website.

“We had a whole bunch of projects in San Juan (National Forest) awarded in ’21 and ’22 and we’re still working on (Great American Outdoors Act) projects from those years,” said Scott Owen, spokesman for San Juan National Forest.

The two projects the forest has completed so far include the resurfacing of Piedra Road in the Pagosa Ranger District, which serves as a major road for recreational users and timber hauling around Williams Creek Reservoir northwest of Pagosa Springs, and the replacement of four toilets at campgrounds across the Columbine Ranger District.

Jointly, they represent an approximately $2.4 million investment.

Since the Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law in August 2020, San Juan National Forest has received about $7 million to support maintenance across its three districts.

Many of San Juan National Forest’s Great American Outdoors Act-funded projects will improve roads and update campground infrastructure, but the forest will also renovate historic fire structures on the Dolores Ranger District, replace the Dutch Creek Trail bridge destroyed in the 416 Fire and maintain trails in the Upper Dolores drainage and Weminuche Wilderness, among others.

Funding from the Great American Outdoors Act will support improvements to 10 roads, 13 trails and 12 developed recreation sites on San Juan National Forest.

According to the Forest Service, San Juan National Forest’s projects will address about $6 million in maintenance backlogs.

The bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act designates up to $1.9 billion annually for five years to the U.S. Department of Interior so federal land agencies can make headway in deferred maintenance. Revenues generated from energy development on federal lands and waters supply the funding.

In 2020, the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had about $25.78 billion in maintenance backlogs, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.

Deferred maintenance has been piling up as visitors increasingly turn to national forests and other federal lands for leisure.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, visits to national forests and grasslands jumped about 18 million from 2019 to 2020, with the Rocky Mountain region experiencing the most visitors.

The influx in visitors has increasingly put pressure on both the natural resources and the infrastructure of national forests, including the 1.8 million-acre San Juan National Forest.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, announced the agency will invest an additional $503 million in Great American Outdoors Act funding to meet the need for deferred maintenance on Forest Service lands.

Owen said San Juan National Forest would not receive any additional support from the next round of funding and that the money would go to projects in other national forests in Colorado.

Along with Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, San Juan National Forest has the largest number of Great American Outdoors Act projects in the state.

While San Juan National Forest will not receive additional money, it has received capital improvement funding to install cattle guards across the forest’s three districts over the next several years, Owen said.

“We have a lot of open range areas on the San Juan and that will help keep the cattle in the areas they’re supposed to be in,” he said.

ahannon@durangoherald.com

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